By Victoria Alessi (@alessi_more)
So here’s a confession: in the past few years, my students haven’t been writing as much as I know they should. Someone once told me that students should write five times more than what I can grade, and that used to be a truth in my classroom. But I’ve spent the past couple of years navigating the changes brought on by the Common Core State Standards, and, unfortunately, the volume and the variety of writing has decreased. Please don’t misunderstand me; my kids write. They write a lot, but not as much as they should, not in as many different genres as they used to, and not with the excitement and joy that they used to have. That’s going to change this year. This is the year that I bring the joy of writing back into my classroom. I want my young writers to be as excited about writing as I am and to have a sense of ownership and authentic purpose in their writing.
Time. Every teacher’s favorite four-letter word. I wish I had more time to . . . I am sure that we can all complete that statement in at least one hundred different ways. I plan to carve out more time, a lot more time, for my students to write in class. Because I believe that giving students time to write during the class period is one of the best gifts that I can give and one of the best ways to keep them excited about writing, I spent much of last year experimenting with flipped instruction as a way to increase in-class writing time, and I spent much of this past August restructuring my lessons in such a way that all of the writing required for class occurs in class. Through independent student reflection, class discussion and anonymous surveys, I learned that my kids got extremely stressed out and overwhelmed when they were required to write at home, and I would often receive work that was not what I, or the student, would consider his or her best work. When there is no stress or pressure of having to write for homework, I’ve found that the quality of writing is much better and that the enthusiasm for writing is much higher. The act of writing becomes exciting and engaging. I’ve also found that my students are more willing to take risks with their writing when they’re given time to write during the class period.I am there to support the students when they need support, to challenge them to try something new or to experiment with a specific craft or structure, to read over their shoulders, and to share bits and pieces of the writing that is taking shape.
Many years ago, I had the privilege of attending a Teaching of Writing class with Lucy Calkins, and one of the things I learned from her was the power of table compliments.Now, I don’t have tables, I have only 40 minutes class periods, and many of my classes have between 28- 30 students, so when I borrowed her idea, I had to make it work for a middle school classroom. I made it my policy to read snippets aloud from different students as they were hard at work writing in class. The kids love to hear what someone else in the class is doing well, and it always amazes me that other kids will try to mimic what I’ve shared, which is a compliment to the young writer. Because I do this so often, I’ve noticed that when we do peer editing or reading aloud of writing, the students are quick to say things like, “I’d like to share this sentence my partner wrote. She did a great job hooking the reader into the piece.” Over the course of any given writing assignment, I try to share as many genuine compliments as I can. Sometimes simple phrases such as, “I really like how you. . . “ or “Listen to how this sentence/ this word/ this idea. . . “ can go a long way in making a young writer excited about his or her craft.
Unfortunately, for many young writers, crafting an essay does not get them excited. Argumentative essays, analytical essays, comparison and contrast essays all have an important place in our classrooms and in the way our students learn to write and to express themselves, but I often wonder about all of the other genres: isn’t a poem as valuable as a thematic essay? I miss reading my students’ poetry, personal reflections and narratives. I miss challenging my students to experiment with hybrid genres and to create zines. I miss watching my students grow as they learn about themselves through their thoughtful and introspective journal entries. I miss the National Writing Project staple, the shared reading, and how my students responded to the reading with their unique points of view. The old adage about variety being the spice of life holds true for writing, too. Young writers should be able to try their hand at crafting a variety of genres, to experiment with words and phrases, and to get excited about the act of writing. Of course, I will continue to teach my students to be the best essay writers they can be (I am an English teacher; it’s what we do), but I plan to breathe new life into my writing curriculum by bringing back some of these old favorites.
Last spring, I squeezed a poetry writing workshop into the curriculum. We read, wrote, and memorized poems. It was wonderful to see the students so excited about reading and writing poetry, and when I heard an enthusiastic voice exclaim, “Oh, yay! We’re writing today!”, I promised myself and my students that I would given them as many opportunities as possible to write because “Oh, yay! We’re writing today!” is music to my ears.
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